American artist Amy Sherald paints Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair’s September issue

The issue, titled The Great Fire, has been guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates and leads with Breonna Taylor’s mother telling the story of her daughter’s life and the night she was killed.

26 August 2020

Unveiled earlier this week was Vanity’s Fair’s September issue. Always an anticipated moment in the media world, the September issue is often when magazines pull out all the stops; this year sees Rihanna on the cover Harper’s Bazaar, for example, and Cardi B on Elle. Vanity Fair’s latest issue features a painting of Breonna Taylor by American artist Amy Sherald.

The issue is titled The Great Fire and comes five months since police killed Taylor in her own home, a crime for which those responsible have still not been held accountable.

The issue has been guest-edited by American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes “Something is happening and I think to understand it, we must better understand the nature of this Great Fire.” To explore this movement and poignant time in history, Coates has compiled activists, artists, and writers to offer a “portrait of hope in a world where the possibility of a legitimate anti-racist majority is emerging for the first time in American history.” Significantly, the issue leads with Taylor’s mother telling the story of her daughter’s life – and the night of her death – in her own words.

Sherald, who was commissioned to create the cover image for The Great Fire is an artist who has been narrativising the lives of Black folk on canvas for two decades now. In 2016, she became the first African American woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition which saw her go on to paint Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in 2018.

As someone who is immunosuppressed, Sherald has been unable to take part in the protests sweeping America and so describes this painting as her contribution to the “moment and to activism – producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever,” she explains in an interview about the cover with Vanity Fair.

Usually, Sherald asks her subjects to sit for a photograph before she paints them, something that was not possible with Taylor who had already passed. Despite this, the portrait is imbued with the subtleties of what Taylor’s life would have been; a gold cross on a chain necklace, an engagement ring on her left hand. They are details Sherald included after learning that “she had been a frontline worker in the battle against Covid-19; that her boyfriend had been about to propose marriage; that she was self-possessed, brave, loving, loved.”

Taylor is pictured with her hand on her hip, in a blue hue which mirrors her aquamarine birthstone, her pose and gaze far from passive. “She looks strong!” says Sherald. “I wanted this image to stand as a piece of inspiration to keep fighting for justice for her. When I look at the dress, it kind of reminds me of Lady Justice.”

Reflecting on this momentous commission, Sherald concludes, “I made this portrait for her family… I mean, of course, I made it for Vanity Fair, but the whole time I was thinking about her family.”

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Amy Sherald: Portrait of Breonna Taylor for Vanity Fair (Copyright © Vanity Fair, 2020)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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